Q & A: David Barstow

The New York Times reporter talks about the Tea Party movement

As the conservative Tea Party movement has picked up steam over the past year, leading national media outlets—many of which were slow to cover the movement at first—have begun to pay more attention. On Tuesday, the movement’s mainstream media profile was raised quite a bit, as The New York Times published a 4,500-word front-page story, the product of five months of work by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter David Barstow. On Tuesday afternoon, Barstow discussed his reporting process, and what he learned about the Tea Party, with CJR assistant editor Greg Marx.

Greg Marx: When did you first get started on this story, and what drew you to it?

David Barstow: As my editors in the investigative unit and I were watching the events of last summer—the town halls, the rise of the Tea Party movement—we were thinking about how to examine this more carefully, to figure out what’s going on. And as I was trying to think of a way to start wrapping my arms around the subject, it happened that the Tea Party Express bus tour was about to embark and cross the country, stopping at rallies all over the place. And it just seemed that one really good way to quickly get a sense of the people who are drawn to the movement was to get on that bus and go across the country with them. We stopped at thirty or more different Tea Party rallies during that fifteen-, sixteen-day period, and it gave me a chance to begin doing literally hundreds of interviews to see the thematic connections between the folks who were showing up at these events.

I realized fairly quickly, though, that the Tea Party Express in its own way was a somewhat anomalous creation. It was something that a group of political operatives in California had put together to serve a pretty distinct agenda, which was to try to harness the energy of the movement to flip congressional seats from blue to red. The people who were running that bus tour were not really representative of the Tea Party movement as a whole, which was very much a grassroots creation that was drawing in lots of newcomers who were extremely concerned about preserving their independence and not being co-opted. And that fear included the Tea Party Express—for example, people in Spokane, Wash., debated for days and days about whether or not they should even host the Tea Party Express.

In the end, the bus tour hardly figured into my story at all. That first phase of reporting was an opportunity to get a broad feel for the kinds of people, the kinds of issues that were connecting all of these different protests around the country. But what I really wanted to deal with was this idea of people being transformed by this movement, of someone like Pam Stout, who had never even given a campaign donation in her life, suddenly becoming president of her local Tea Party.

GM: When did you settle on that story?

DB: I’m not sure I could put a finger on it. But at some point along the way I was struck by the number of people who had really been transformed since the recession hit. You could not miss the number of people who were drawn to this movement because of the events of the fall of ’08. That was one theme that became really clear to me—their incredible anger at the economic pain that they were witnessing in their own lives and the lives of their friends and family, and their anger and disappointment at the government’s role in both the events that led to the recession and the response, especially the bailouts.

The other thing that came through was this idea of impending tyranny. You could not go to Tea Party rallies or spend time talking to people within the movement without hearing that fear expressed in myriad ways. I was struck by the number of people who had come to the point where they were literally in fear of whether or not the United States of America would continue to be a free country. I just started seeing that theme come up everywhere I went.

And at some point I knew I wanted to try to ground my story in a particular place. A limitation of traveling around on the Tea Party Express was that we weren’t in any one place for long enough to get to know the local leaders of this conservative uprising—and by the way, the uprising wasn’t merely about the Tea Party movement. You had the emergence of the 9/12 movement, you had the re-emergence of groups like the John Birch Society, you had the incredible strength of Campaign for Liberty, and you could see all these different groups—which are in many ways more aligned with Patriot movement ideology than they are with any Republican establishment organization—both drawn to the Tea Party movement but also coalescing within it. I wanted to find a framework to tell that particular story.

GM: How did you settle on the inland Northwest?

DB: Part of it was happenstance. A second bus tour was planned, and at that point I was thinking that I might do some reporting in a place where the Tea Party Express was going to arrive—see it come in, then see it leave, but still be writing about the people in that particular place. And it just so happened the Tea Party Express was going to be in Spokane in late October, at a time when I could be there.

I also was aware of the history of anti-government activism in that area, and I knew there was a very robust community of human rights and civil rights activists that had sprung up in response to some of the Ruby Ridge stuff. And in grounding my story in a place, I wanted to find a way to reflect how people who were coming at the Tea Party movement from a different point of view were evaluating it. I just thought it was important to find a way to deal with this story on multiple dimensions.

GM: Once you focused on a local area, was it still difficult to figure out who was in charge, what the networks were, who represented who?

DB: It’s certainly much easier once you’re in a particular place to figure out who the characters are and who’s doing what. On the other hand, while it’s completely true to say that this is a very difficult movement to report on because of its factionalized nature, you can make too much of that. If you spend enough time talking to people in the movement, eventually you hear enough of the same kinds of ideas, the same kinds of concerns, and you begin to recognize what the ideology is, what the paradigm is that they’re operating in.

There are exceptions, as I noted in the story, but generally it becomes very familiar: you begin to understand why it is that they’re so concerned about ACORN, why it is that they’re so concerned about global warming, why it is that they’re worried about the potential for things like FEMA camps. You understand why they’re so angry not just at Obama and the Democrats, but also at people like John McCain. You understand where they’re coming from on stimulus and bailouts and the Federal Reserve. If you scrape deep enough with people and spend enough time really listening to what they’re concerned about, it does tend to gel. There’s a fear that both parties have been complicit in this giant charade that has done enormous damage to ordinary Americans. It’s very complex, and yet at the same time there is something coherent about it.

GM: One of the things that readers seem to have responded to is the militia angle that you describe in the story. Is that something that’s nationwide, or a reflection of the region you focused on?

DB: The militia movement is on the rise in lots of different places, not just in the inland Northwest. I saw the people who were active in militia movements showing up all across the country. That is not to say that everybody in the Tea Party movement is part of a militia group; that’s absolutely not the case. But you will be hard-pressed to find people in the Tea Party movement who think there’s anything wrong with going out on a weekend with a bunch of other people and doing paramilitary training. There’s a much broader acceptance of that idea.

GM: Were the people you were writing about wary about being approached by a New York Times reporter?

DB: There’s obviously a large amount of mistrust toward mainstream media, including The New York Times and other news organizations that they see as being a part of the problem. You might get a weird look, or “You’re from the what?” But by and large, there’s a deep desire among the people who are in this movement to be understood. They want to be heard; they want to reach a bigger audience.

GM: Were there other reporters, or other journalistic institutions, whose work you found useful?

DB: I certainly tried to read everything I could that was written about the movement. But what is more important is to understand some of the books that are at its core. You really do need to read The Five Thousand Year Leap and understand who Cleon Skousen is. You need to know who Edward Griffin is, and how his book The Creature from Jekyll Island plays into this. You need to understand why Atlas Shrugged has become such a big seller in this country. It’s not just reading the stories about the Tea Party movement, it’s actually delving in to the body of books and magazines and Web sites that help form the walls and floors and ceilings of this political subculture. A big part of this movement that has not been well explained or understood by the media is that there is a robust intellectual subculture to it. These people are going to seminars on the Constitution; they are reading books; they are taking a new look at their country and how it got to where it is today, and that’s something I was trying to reflect in the story.

GM: Are there other points you think the media has not captured?

DB: I think a lot of stories approach the Tea Party movement from the frame that this is a fight about how conservative the Republican Party should be. And there’s obviously something important about that, and it should be explored, but the Tea Party movement that I’ve come to know is aiming higher than that. They are seeking a bigger transformation than just nudging the Republican Party a little bit to the right. You start seeing, for example, their feelings about wanting a drastically smaller federal government. And you’re seeing some of those ideas percolate up to the policy realm; look at Paul Ryan putting out a budget proposal that would phase out or seek to privatize Social Security. It’s not merely about trying to get rid of a couple moderate Republicans; it’s seeking a much more sweeping political reordering. I think sometimes the coverage has a hard time explaining that. A lot of the coverage is about how these people want smaller government and less taxation. That’s true, and yet it doesn’t completely get what’s going on.

GM: Did you come to any conclusions about whether that project is viable?

DB: I have no idea. I was just trying to do the best job I could to explain what it was what that I was seeing. That’s a hard enough job as it is, rather than trying to figure out whether or not it’s going to work.

GM: You started in September and didn’t write anything else while you were working on this story. Even in the investigative unit, is there any institutional pressure to hurry up and get the piece done?

DB: I think we all understood that when you embark on something like this, it’s not like you can go to a GAO report and read up on it quickly. It’s not like there was a body of literature that you can go out and quickly get up to speed. It requires more patience to spend enough time, and do enough interviews, to get to a point where you feel “Okay, I got it.” This is precisely the kind of story and precisely the kind of topic where having the resources and the time to go deep is not just a luxury, but really a necessity, in order to do a decent job explaining a movement that people are struggling to get a grip on.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.